Why China’s Response to US Warships in the Taiwan Strait Surprised Analysts | CNN


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Seoul, South Korea

After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in early August, the Chinese military staged some of its largest-ever military exercises around the island.

Chinese warplanes swarmed across the Taiwan Strait and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) even fired missiles over Taiwan, the democratically-ruled island that the Chinese Communist Party claims as its sovereign territory despite never having controlled it.

Those Chinese military exercises brought about what some analysts and officials feared could be a “new normal” across the strait: a more permanent PLA presence moving closer to Taiwan.

US officials, meanwhile, promised Washington would stay on track and challenge Chinese harassment tactics.

On Sunday, the US Navy sent two guided-missile cruisers through the strait, over which Beijing claims sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction under Chinese law and its interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The US and others maintain that the strait is international waters under the UN treaty.

It was the first time in at least four years that the US Navy had sent two cruisers through the strait, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, which maintains a database on the transits.

“Having two rather than one vessel to carry out this mission certainly sends a ‘greater’ signal of protest not only to Beijing’s recent military exercises around Taiwan after the visit to Pelosi, but also in response to the attempt from Beijing to review the legal status of the waterway and the long-standing freedom of navigation rights through the area,” Koh said.

It was no surprise that the American warships made the passage on Sunday. They have made dozens of such trips in recent years, and US officials had said the transits would continue.

What surprised analysts was Beijing’s muted response.

The Chinese military’s Eastern Theater Command said it was monitoring the two ships, on high alert and “ready to thwart any provocation”.

Even the state-run Global Times tabloid, known for its often cranky and determined nationalist editorials, said the presence of the two cruisers posed “no real threat to China’s security.”

Transits of the past have elicited a stronger response. After the destroyer USS Benfold passed through the strait in July, Colonel Shi Yi, spokesman for the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command, described the US as the “destroyer of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”.

While earlier this month, China’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, called on the US to halt sea crossings, saying they are ramping up tensions and encouraging “Taiwan’s separatist independence forces.”

“If there is anything that damages China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, China will respond,” Qin told reporters in Washington in response to a question about possible upcoming transits.

Koh, the analyst, noted Beijing’s relatively tame statements on Sunday.

“Why didn’t the Chinese go further than that, given their previous strong opposition to Washington’s alleged intent to continue such transits?” he said, with three possible factors.

First, Beijing may be wary of “international backlash” as any attempt to restrict US Navy navigation through the strait could be seen as a threat to the rights of ships from other countries to navigate the waterway. .

Second, after the Pelosi visit to Taiwan, Pelosi suspended the main military channels of communication with Washington, increasing the risk of misunderstanding during any PLA Navy-US Navy interaction.

Third, there are other areas where Washington and Beijing are working together, and China may not want to pressure those, Koh said.

“There is no point in provoking further heightened tensions that could potentially escalate into a clash,” he said.

Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, suggests a fourth possibility.

“I think (Chinese leader Xi Jinping) will avoid any action that could increase the chances of the Republicans and other Chinese hawks in the upcoming election. He doesn’t want a house and senate that can pass legislation that strengthens Taiwan’s support, or restricts Chinese investment and influence in the US,” Schuster said.

Meanwhile, he said the use of two cruisers in the final pass through the strait may be seen not so much as an explanation, but as reasonable military planning.

“Given China’s threats and recent missile strikes in international waters…it seems prudent to allow two warships to sail through those waters together,” Schuster said.

And expect the US Navy to continue with regular passages of the strait, he said.

“Under international law, it is international waters and so there is no official dispute over its status,” he said. “The US Navy transit is making that statement silently and effectively.”

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